Who knew that learning about the birds and the bees could cause so much commotion?
This month, a heated debate over sex education in Wake County schools has finally come to a close with the Wake County Board of Education's vote to revise the current Abstinence Until Marriage curriculum--standardized by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1995--for grades 7-9.
The new and revised curriculum for Wake County will include updated information about sexually transmitted diseases, contraceptives and teen pregnancy, as well as lessons about building healthy relationships, making healthy decisions, resisting peer pressure and tolerating differences in sexual orientation.
Although advocates of the expanded curriculum stress the relatively minor changes in sex education, the issue has caused considerable controversy in the Triangle community.
"It is a very sensitive subject," said Kathryn Watson Quigg, chair of the school Board whose tie-breaking vote gave the revisionists a 5-4 victory. "There were concerns in the community that any change in the Abstinence Until Marriage policy may weaken the overall curriculum," she said.
However, Quigg said increasing the information available to teenagers regarding sex would only enhance their abilities to make wise, informed choices.
The Board members were divided predominately over one word in the proposed curriculum: tolerance. Those who voted against revising the curriculum defined tolerance to mean that schools would be essentially condoning homosexuality.
Board member Amy White said according to North Carolina law, homosexuality is technically illegal. In her opinion, tolerance implied acknowledging that a choice was wrong but turning a blind eye.
"We were seeking to tolerate homosexual behavior," she said. "Where do you draw the line? If we're going to tolerate, we should tolerate people who rob banks. Let's tolerate Hitler. Let's tolerate Osama bin Laden."
However, Quigg maintained that tolerance was intended to stop harassment or bullying of others for any point of difference, such as homosexuality. "Tolerance doesn't mean acceptance. It means respect of people different from you," she said.
Revision-supporter and Board member Jeff York said the whole controversy was solely a matter of wording. "They got caught up in the terminology," he said of the opposing group.
Even so, Quigg said the curriculum's emphasis on tolerance is too brief to be worth fretting over. "The whole sex-ed curriculum is only 12 days out of the year," she said. "Only one day is devoted to tolerance. I hardly think that will lead to a moral decline in our system."
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The Board left the decision to create an elective course for 10th through 12th graders about healthful living, which would require parental permission to enroll, up to the discretion of the School Administration.
"In the absence of a specific Board action, our staff will continue to develop the electives," Chip Sudderth, communications specialist for the Wake County Public School System, said.
Sex education has been a topic of contention in Wake County since March when the School Health Advisory Council, made up of local medical professionals, recommended to the Board that the school system's Healthful Living curriculum should include comprehensive rather than abstinence sex education.
Comprehensive sex education--used by both Durham and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools--allows for more complete discussion of a wide range of issues like homosexuality and contraceptive use and requires a public hearing as well as school Board approval before it can be implemented.
Although the school system denied the request to switch to comprehensive sex education and instead, recommended revising the current curriculum, Board administrators held a public hearing Oct. 21 that attracted 600 concerned citizens.
York said that while the hearing was unnecessary since a comprehensive sex education curriculum was no longer in the cards, the administration wanted to keep the public involved in the decision-making process.
The dispute concluded Nov. 5 when the Board endorsed the staff's recommendations to update the curriculum for grades 7-9, while still teaching Abstinence Until Marriage.
The curriculum changes will be in place this spring, while the high school electives will be developed throughout the year to be implemented during the 2003-2004 school year.